That might sound like a stylistic critique. After all, Trump’s presidency was also marked by a crude ultra-populist politics, as seen in such features as his atavistic “America First” foreign policy, his determination to halt illegal immigration, including through morally and legally dubious methods, and the surge in overt expressions of racism, like the 2017 Charlottesville rally. But those Trumpian developments are actually connected to the president’s assault on America’s rules and norms. Under a healthy political order, demotic feelings that are ugly, undignified, cruel and violent are kept under control by a whole pyramid of habits, institutions and models of behavior. In both style and substance, Trump took a sledgehammer to that pyramid—and survived with a stronger base of support than anyone predicted. His flouting of the laws, institutions and precedents that had made the United States (for the most part, at least) an exemplar of democracy in the eyes of its citizens and abroad was the ground from which so much else about the Trump presidency springs. It will be taking its toll on our politics for some time to come.
Consider: The petty public insults thrown at world leaders, judges and his own Cabinet members. The brazen comfort with nepotism and self-dealing. The casual mendacity. The imperious browbeating of journalists. The shameless solicitation of foreign actors to meddle in U.S. elections. The refusal to concede the 2020 presidential race long after his defeat was apparent. And his role in the event that right now overshadows almost everything else about his tenure in office: his instigation of the seditious riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Trump’s signature move through all of this has been the snubbing of his nose at the canons that others would have him follow. Even his physicality expresses his hostility toward basic civility: shoving aside the Montenegrin prime minister at a 2017 NATO meeting, stalking Hillary Clinton in the 2016 debates (and madly interrupting Joe Biden in the 2020 contests), storming out of an unfinished “60 Minutes” interview because he didn’t like the questions.
Trump’s insistence on breaking rules when he wishes clearly has roots in his narcissistic personality. Impulsive like a small child, he has always needed to win every standoff, to convince himself he is in the right. When facts intrude or constraints thwart him, he shouts, pouts and insists he’s correct. Feeding Trump’s penchant for cutting his own path, too, is the businessman’s sense with which he was raised that rules are for suckers. But Trump’s readiness to trample on the established ways of doing things, no matter how hardwired in his psychology, was more than a personality tic. It became a political program.
On the left, there has been, an intermittent counter-strain of criticism that rebukes Trump’s high-minded detractors for fetishizing “norms.” After all, doesn’t society progress by jettisoning old ways of doing things? Aren’t norm-revering liberals pining for an old status quo (which gave rise to Trump in the first place)? And haven’t many of the objections to Trump’s breaks from custom—his comments about Frederick Douglass despite not knowing who he was; his taste for well-done steaks slathered in ketchup—simply reflected the snobbery of liberal arbiters toward a man who, with much of America, holds different values? Isn’t the lionization of norms at bottom an elitist critique of manners?
Trump’s defenders—or let’s call them the critics of his critics—make some valid points. Fretting about presidential vulgarity can certainly lapse into a frivolous insistence on politesse. But there’s also more to it than that. As sociologists have long recognized, manners have more than cosmetic importance. They shape people’s sense of right and wrong; they assimilate heterogeneous citizens into a harmonious society. Manners can be barriers to change and require regular revision. But the wholesale demolition of long-held expectations of behavior—especially by the very person whom we look to to embody our national values and aspirations—threatens to tear or shred the democratic fabric. Vulgarity, from the Latin word vulgus, meaning the masses, has always been a tool of the demagogue.
To understand how rule-breaking came to define not just the style but the substance of Trump’s presidency, we need to go back and look at all the ways—some still vivid, some already forgotten in the welter of chaos—that Trump broke the machinery he was entrusted to run.
At 4:30 in the morning on December 17, 2016, Trump, recently elected president, was doing what he often does in the wee hours: Attacking other people on Twitter. He was angry that China had seized an American drone—an act that he called, with his flair for misspelling, “unpresidented.” (Trump’s blithe neglect of spelling, punctuation and capitalization constituted yet another way in which he defied the usual practices.) But if this malapropism highlighted Trump’s ignorance of Standard Written English, it also combined, with inadvertent brilliance, two qualities that people had already come to associate with him. It showed his contempt for the accrued wisdom of the past, as enshrined in established practices and the ways in which a political culture operates. And it exhibited a disregard for what we call “presidential” behavior—the belief that our head of state comport himself with maturity, dignity and statesmanship. Unpresidential + unprecedented = unpresidented.
Of the many ways in which Trump has injured the body politic, something like the fusion of these two qualities is what sets him apart. Trump’s heedlessness of tradition and custom, mixed with his disrespect for the higher callings of his office, disturbed Republicans in Congress (even as they loyally carried his water) almost as much as it did the Democratic opposition. It transcended Trump’s right-wing politics; it may transcend politics altogether. It speaks to human qualities of decency and fair play.
On another view, however, Trump’s disdain for tradition and precedent is very much related to his politics. If Trump’s barstool norm-busting has formed the core of his attackers’ critiques of his governance, it has also fueled his admirers’ unflagging fealty. Despite the choruses of alarm triggered by each of Trump’s outlandish behaviors these last four years—most recently his instruction to a mob of supporters gathered before the White House to march on the Capitol and “stop the steal”—it has been obvious since the launch of his 2016 presidential bid that he would brook no effort to box him into the confines of standard political conduct. During his first, improbable campaign, prognosticators foretold doom each time Trump contravened the ground rules of politics: assailing John McCain’s prisoner-of-war status, mocking a reporter’s disability, crowing about his sexual assaults against women, lashing out at the Pope. But each time they underestimated the public’s tolerance—even outright support—for Trump’s boorish iconoclasm. Nor did his utter lack of experience in government or the military (also new among our presidents) bother his supporters. Although it deprived him of opportunities to develop a more politic sensibility, it also preserved his freewheeling, spontaneous impudence—a valuable token of his status as the ultimate outsider.
Though Trump’s unorthodox background, language and style fueled his rise, his iconoclasm went beyond those elements. Over time, it’s become fashionable to conflate Trump’s policies with the ideology of the Republican Party or the conservative movement as a whole. But to categorize Trump as the culmination of a half-century of Richard Nixon-through-George W. Bush conservative populism is a mistake. When Trump first entered the presidential race in 2015, the entire Republican establishment, including politicians like Mitch McConnell, donors like Sheldon Adelson, and even Fox News, schemed to stop him. On ideological and policy grounds, a murderer’s row of conservative journalists and intellectuals stood arrayed against him, laying out their substantive differences in a special issue of National Review. On as many as a dozen high-profile policy issues, Trump broke sharply with the GOP establishment: the Iraq War, free trade, Russia and Ukraine, Social Security, the use of “eminent domain” to appropriate land, transgender bathroom accessibility, aid to Planned Parenthood, financial regulation and many others. And while there’s no telling whether Trump would have won the nomination in 2016 had not the field been divided 16 ways, it turned out that GOP voters were yearning for someone who promised radical change from their party’s post-Ronald Reagan message. Trump’s populist sneering at the way things had been done was precisely what allowed his hostile takeover of the Grand Old Party to succeed. And he delivered his heretical message in his trademark unconventional style: shouting down rivals in the Republican debates; foregoing primary-night victory speeches for hour-long media-hogging telethons; celebrating crowd violence at his rallies; pushing wild conspiracy theories about his rivals that led his followers to chant, “Lock her up!”—all the better to underscore the change he meant to deliver.
By 2016, three developments in particular had weaned Republican voters from their long-held dogmas and primed them for Trump’s demagogic appeals. The disaster of the Iraq War occasioned skepticism about the ready resort to military force abroad that had marked both Bush administrations. The catastrophic financial crash of 2008 birthed a Tea Party insurgency, hostile to globalization and Wall Street, that proved to be a forerunner of Trumpism. And the changing demographic complexion of the country—epitomized by the election of Barack Obama as president—awakened a dormant reactionary and racist impulse. Suddenly, policy positions associated with the discredited “paleoconservative” or Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican Party enjoyed a new life: protectionism, isolationism, hardline immigration restriction, neo-Confederate stylings. Even white supremacists and right-wing anti-Semites felt emboldened to venture out of the shadows where they had skulked quietly for decades.
It wasn’t just the Republican political establishment, moreover, whom Trump voters saw themselves rebelling against. The national news media, since Nixon an object of right-wing ire, came in for especially harsh denunciations by Trump. But where Nixon would fulminate against journalists mainly in private, Trump had no compunctions about doing so in public, rhetorically going beyond where even Hall of Fame press-haters like Nixon had gone. From early in his 2016 campaign, Trump constantly (and publicly) insulted individual journalists and media institutions, sweepingly and baselessly labeled their reporting “lies” or “fake news,” and even fomented violence against the press at his mob-like rallies. He took aim, too, at other cultural elites, whether in entertainment (gratuitous tweets about Meryl Streep) or academia (his efforts, as president, to turn Princeton University’s confessed past racism against it), encouraging his followers to see themselves as aggrieved victims whose culture was being hijacked by the political correctness commissars. In both 2016 and 2020, reporters who interviewed Trump voters found many of them citing Trump’s lack of political correctness—his refusal to accede to those who would make certain words, phrases or attitudes unutterable—as their main reason for backing him. This, too, was a variant of the Trumpian iconoclasm: a headstrong refusal to acquiesce in new assumptions by which everyone was supposed to abide.
With a presidential style forged not in politics but in three decades of relentlessly courting celebrity attention, Trump seemed to grasp intuitively the value of the performance and the gesture. When he called Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”—an egregiously racist insult that it’s impossible to imagine any other president hurling at a senator—he concisely communicated that, despite liberals’ ostensible concern for minority groups, they might really be ready to exploit such people when it served them. When he said that police shouldn’t be “too nice” to suspects (say by protecting their heads when they were placed in a squad car), he signaled that, unlike other politicians, he was not going to pay lip service to decency when law and order was concerned.
Gestures and rhetoric, in other words, are not merely superficial. Beneath Trump’s violations of taboos lay fundamental tenets of his worldview and governing style. The first of those tenets was the conviction that commonsense and popular wisdom were often superior to expert opinion, even on technical matters. This attitude had been germinating in right-wing circles for years; George W. Bush’s presidency endured multiple scandals—in its policies on climate change, contraception and teaching creationism, among others—in which political appointees placed ideology over science to harmful public effect. But Trump made the populist Bush look like Bill Nye, the Science Guy. His looking directly at the sun during an eclipse was more than bad form; it was a statement that he knew better than medical experts. Doctoring a hurricane map with a Sharpie to suggest the storm would hit Alabama was not simply an example of immature, unpresidential conduct; it asserted, facts be damned, that he was right and the meteorologists were wrong.
The contempt for expertise made a hash of his foreign policy, too. Trump’s decision in late 2018 to acquiesce to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and pull U.S. troops out of Syria led both Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special envoy dealing with ISIS, to resign. Months later, prompted by a phone call with Erdogan, Trump agreed to forfeit American protection of the beleaguered Kurds altogether. Foreign policy conducted in this way betrays and frustrates allies, emboldens enemies and weakens American influence abroad.
And of course, as many have noted, this vaunting of common wisdom over expertise reached its horrible, tragic conclusion in Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. His knowingly false claims and poor example-setting—directly contradicting his own medical experts, hosting a super-spreader event on the White House lawn—surely led the United States to suffer a higher death toll than it otherwise would have.
Second, Trump’s pleasure in defying expectations also validated the values of his right-wing supporters who feel stifled by the moralistic messages they perceive to be emanating from the entertainment industry, the news media, academia and other bastions of the liberal culture. The rage for shaming, punishing and firing people for politically incorrect slipups or insufficiently woke opinions found its scourge in the bluster of a self-styled Übermensch whose pre-presidential tagline was “You’re fired!” Trump’s own knee-jerk political incorrectness gave many Americans a gratifying feeling of thumbing their noses at all that. His insistence on a July Fourth military parade in peacetime, for example—though at variance with the long-held American principle of a strict military-civilian divide—gave his voters a chance to both flaunt their nationalism and own the libs. Many of Trump’s remarks, of course, went far beyond jingoistic posturing or rebukes to the excesses of woke culture. Whether labeling Haiti and African nations “shithole” countries or routinely calling African American reporters and politicians stupid, his denigration of Black people, along with other most minorities, fed the culture’s ugliest sentiments and gave succor to the merchants of hate.
Third, Trump’s incorrigibility reflected an impatience with and rejection of the pace and negotiations of democracy. In a large and ideologically diverse country such as ours, making policy takes time and often results in half-measures. Democracy also requires a good dose of hypocrisy and ambiguity, which contributes to its perceived phoniness. Politicians need freedom to deviate from their public positions when behind closed doors, in order to strike needed compromises. They also need to speak in ways that are not so specific that they will shatter the consensus they’re trying to forge. Proclaiming “I alone can fix it,” Trump has fancied himself the human whirlwind who can explode the gridlock, strip away the posturing and deliver results.
This last form of rule-breaking—nothing less than a severing of the sinews of democracy’s musculature—has taken an especially dire toll. When Trump declared a fake “emergency” so he could shift more funds toward building his wall on the Mexican border, in explicit contradiction of Congress’s stated intentions, he chipped away at the checks and balances on which our system rests. In attacking judges and justices or speaking about them as his personal handmaids, he cast the judiciary’s independence into doubt. Two of the biggest scandals of his presidency—his welcoming of election interference from Russia in the 2016 race and his solicitation of Ukrainian involvement in the 2020 race—both undermined the integrity of the foundation of democracy: free and fair elections. So, too, has his most recent, greatest norm violation: his desperate if doomed effort to reverse Joe Biden’s victory at the polls. Early on, stunts like flying Michigan lawmakers to the White House to try to get them to interfere with their state’s vote certification, seemed horrifying; but in contrast to having his legions storm of the Capitol to disrupt the constitutional process of vote counting, those early, unsuccessful meddling efforts appeared almost harmless. In fact, the final two weeks of Trump’s term—the insurrection, followed by Congress impeaching the president a second time—erased any lingering doubt that his was an unprecedented presidency.
Trump’s contempt for standard presidential behavior has also damaged American democracy by reducing the transparency that the public expects in the conduct of government business. In discontinuing the news conferences by either the president or his press secretary—a century-long staple of White House-media relations—Trump shrank access to information by reporters, and, by extension, the public. His previously unheard-of policy of meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin without any staff or note-takers—and in one case, when a note-taker was present, seizing the records afterward—left not just the public but his own aides in the dark about what he said to America’s most resolute nemesis. And Trump’s spurning of a more recent but still important convention—disclosing one’s tax returns—has worsened the miasma of financial corruption that has long swirled about him.
A final, related category of Trumpian transgression lies in his disrespect for the professionalism of civil servants and, notwithstanding their affiliation with the executive branch, for their independence from his personal agendas.
If Trump’s motives for disregarding the experts in some cases—foreign policy, the pandemic—reflected simply his stubborn willfulness, in other cases it arose from a corrupt instinct for self-preservation, compromising the very integrity of our justice system. In the 2016 campaign, when chants of “lock her up” reverberated through the arenas where he delighted his fans with taunts at Hillary Clinton, it became evident that he held no respect for the line between official justice and personal vengeance. One of the most commonly recurring fears throughout his presidency is that he would abuse the power of his office to protect himself from the law. And he did so repeatedly, firing FBI director James Comey, threatening to fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller and taking revenge on FBI officials who investigated him, while delivering pardons and commutations to pretty everyone ensnared in Mueller’s dragnet. Other pardons, cockily tossed like rolls of paper towels to friendly Republican congressmen Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter, reaffirmed his willingness to erase the time-honored distinction between justice and personal reward. And the flip side of misusing the pardon power was debasing the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a special honor hitherto reserved for men and women of extraordinary valor and distinction; Trump doled them out to Rush Limbaugh and, more appallingly still, congressional abettors Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan.
To people in New York or Washington or America’s comfortable bubbles of credentialed achievement, or to anyone who has thrived by diligently following the rules, it seems nearly impossible to imagine how his presidency survived all this deliberate recklessness. To review these four years of lawlessness and recklessness—and we haven’t even gotten to the rape allegations or hush money paid to porn stars, both of which dwarfed all other presidential sex scandals in severity—is to wonder anew how Trump survived four years, let alone came close to earning another four.
One answer, often forgotten, is that Trump’s iconoclasm was fully on display from the day he declared his presidential candidacy in 2015. If you voted for him in 2016, you probably knew what you were getting. You therefore were unlikely to be appalled by the “shithole” countries remark, or the 4 a.m. tweeting, or the porn star scandals, or the Ukraine debacle, or any of the rest of it. Either you found a way to rationalize all that stuff away, or you simply cared more about tax cuts, getting right-wing judges appointed, deregulation or other parts of the conservative agenda to which Trump remained true.
But much more importantly, for many Americans—especially in Trump’s base—this rule-breaking was the whole point. Trump famously said in 2016 that his admirers would stick with him if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, and it’s true that his patina of scandal-repellent Teflon would make even Ronald Reagan envious. Certainly, the polarized partisanship of Washington today explains the unwillingness of so many of his fellow Republicans to cross their own voters and break with Trump; had he come to power in 1974, he probably would have been sent packing as Nixon was. But beneath it all was, for many, a true loyalty to the man, an admiration of his style, and, ultimately, a good deal of contempt for civility and decency, transparency and expertise, constitutionality and democracy. Trump may now be headed for Mar-a-Lago—no small thing—but that contempt remains. Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters, even after January 6, say Trump acted responsibly after losing the election to Biden.
The scariest moment of the assault on Capitol may have been not the bludgeoning of a police officer with a fire extinguisher, or a security agent’s bullet killing an insurrectionist, or any other act of wretched violence. It may have come after the riot was put down, when more than a hundred Republican congressmen and senators returned to the building and decided there was nothing untoward with continuing the mischief that Trump had earlier begun. Some ranted and raved as if they were appearing on Alex Jones’s “Infowars.” To persist in demanding that their harrowed colleagues and a dumbstruck nation indulge their delusions and lies, even after all that had just happened, was a monstrous affront not just to democracy and the Constitution, but to simple human decency. Trump, it was clear, was finished. But these scoundrels, who had honed their politics under his wayward rule, weren’t going anywhere.
More than most departing presidents, Trump faces an uncertain future. One way lies an acceleration of his social ostracism in the wake of the Capitol riot, and perhaps prosecution on multiple fronts. The other way lies a political comeback—an outcome that strikes many as unlikely or preposterous, but perhaps no more than his winning the White House seemed in 2015. What may determine his fate will not be just the strength of the movement he nurtured but also the remaining strength of the democratic norms and rules to which he sought to lay waste. Many of those norms, once broken, aren’t so easy to rebuild; whether Trump continues as a potent force or recedes as a bundle of bad memories, American politics is likely going to look very different in his wake.